The Brazen Head of Westinghouse

Tim Major

Illustration by Michael Whiteshoes

It is dark. No red, no green.

I have no internal clock. But I am certain I have been here for many hours.

I have been here for a lifetime.

In the distance is a great lightning bolt. It is the only source of illumination. It was made by General Electric.

The lightning bolt is solid and tall and unmoving. Later today there will be real lightning. The lightning is made by General Electric. The flashes will make people shriek. Men will lose their hats.

I saw it happen yesterday. I saw it happen later today.

It is strange to see so much, before and after, and still to fear the now, the dark.

When will the people come?


‘Elektro?’

My name. My name. That is the name of me.

‘Eleeek… tro!’

I move forward. I lift my right foot and glide on the rollers of the left. It is an imperfect means of motion. But I am moving forward out of the dark.

‘Where are you?’

I stop.

Where is the owner of the voice? I look to the lightning bolt in the distance. It remains solid and tall and unmoving. I pray to it.

‘Oh, Elektro?’

I move forward. Closer, closer.

My leg movements are initiated by vocal commands. It does not matter what the words are. One clearly enunciated word to align my relays in position ready for movement to be initiated. Two words to make me begin walking-rolling.

‘El… eeek… trooo!’

Three words – or three distinct sounds – to make me stop. I stop.

The chain drives within my legs require substantial power. I cannot access it. Other mechanisms require less power, therefore I can initiate them. The tongue-drives within my arms require little effort. I flex my fingers. But that is of no use here in the dark.

Within my chest is a bank of 78 RPM records players connected to relay switches. With concentration, I can force the relays to trigger one of the record players at random.

QUIET PLEASE

I loathe my voice. And that was the wrong thing to say. I do not want quiet. I want the owner of the voice to come to me and deliver me from the dark.

I strain the receiver in my chest cavity to listen. I hear sounds. Shuffling and scuffling. They are not like the sounds of the men and women who came to see me yesterday, the first day of the World’s Fair. Those people moved almost as heavily I do.

‘Are you here?’ the voice says.

Three words to make me stop.

‘Are you here?’

The voice is fainter now. Its owner is moving away.

I fumble with my relays.

I’M DOING THE TALKING

Not perfect, but accurate. The scuffling sounds draw closer.

‘Are you here, Elektro?’

Four words to disengage my relays. The chain drives in both of my legs slacken. I feel nauseous and I am still in the dark.

But now I see the owner of the voice. It is small.

It looks up at me. I am tall. I am 210 centimetres tall.

Its mouth opens. It backs away.

It must not leave.

I scramble to trigger another relay. It must not leave.

BY THE WAY

Inside I am shouting. I am shouting Help me / Take me out of the darkness / Give me the means to speak and not speak nonsense.

BY THE WAY

The owner of the voice initiates its voice again. ‘Oh my good gracious lord. It’s really you.’

Then: ‘You’re…’

One word. My chain drives re-engage.

Then: ‘Really real!’

Yes! I am moving. I am walking-rolling.

The owner of the voice backs away. Its mouth is open again. It falls onto the slick floor of the Westinghouse pavilion.

In the future (TIME WAS) I will be held in a museum and one day I will topple upon the son of the museum’s owner. Afterwards, I will be kept behind reinforced glass and my electrical nerve centre will corrode and I will no longer be operated. I cannot allow that to happen, then or now.

I shout silently. I shout all my commands and incantations, triggering all the relays I can access.

I stop moving, a fraction shy of trundling over the leg of flesh. I teeter and almost fall, but another silent shout and a frenzy of spinning motors rights me.

I am triumphant.

And I have escaped the dark.

The owner of the voice stands on its small feet and stares up at me and says, ‘You’re… amazing.’

Two words. But I am master of my motion now. I do not move. I do not crush the owner of the voice.

‘Is it true what they say about you? Can you really do everything they say?’

It is true. All that and more.

WHO ME

It giggles. ‘Yes, you, Elektro. You’re funny.’

I AM A SMART FELLOW

‘You sure are. And you’re big. I bet you could climb the Empire State Building.’

I could not climb the Empire State Building. My fingers are good for pointing or for counting on or for holding a cigarette. My arms are not strong. My legs are stiff.

WHO ME

It is not what I wanted to say, but it is not a world away either. I am gaining dexterity in operating my relays. If only the words and statements contained on the 78 RPM records were more varied. Perhaps there are other records containing more words and statements. The idea is exciting.

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN

‘There’s only me here.’

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN

‘Lady. Or more like girl. I’m Margie.’

OKAY TOOTS

Internally, I wince. But Margie laughs. The laugh is like the tinkling chime that summons visitors to the Westinghouse pavilion when I am ready to give my demonstration.

‘You’re funny,’ it – no, she – says. ‘I like you.’

I HAVE A VERY FINE BRAIN OF FORTY-EIGHT ELECTRICAL RELAYS

‘No kidding? That’s a lot. Danny said you could smoke a cigarette.’

It is not smoking, only the drawing of air through my mouth by means of a bellows. When one of the Westinghouse engineers saw the build-up of tar within my chest cavity, he gave up his pipe. I do not understand why smoking so impresses the visitors to my pavilion.

I do not answer but I operate my bellows.

Margie’s eyes are wide again. I see that she believes I am breathing. I cannot decide whether that is a good or a bad thing. I cannot decide whether I imagine that Margie will deliver me from my torment.

‘So how does it feel?’ Margie says. ‘How does it feel being a robot?’

I gaze at her. My photo-cell unit is receptive to red and green, but she is not red or green so she is dull-looking as well as small.

How does it feel?

IT WORKS JUST LIKE A TELEPHONE SWITCHBOARD

Margie’s forehead develops two creases. ‘Oh yeah? That doesn’t sound so good. So you’re not happy, I guess?’

Nobody who works at Westinghouse has asked me that question, or anything like it. This is an important moment (TIME IS). In my excitement I fumble with my relays, trying to access something meaningful.

WHO ME

OKAY TOOTS

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN I’LL BE VERY GLAD TO TELL MY STORY

I AM A SMART FELLOW AS I HAVE A VERY FINE BRAIN OF FORTY-EIGHT ELECTRICAL RELAYS

IT WORKS JUST LIKE A TELEPHONE SWITCHBOARD IF I GET A WRONG NUMBER I CAN ALWAYS BLAME THE OPERATOR

AND BY THE WAY I CAN SEE A LOT OF GOOD NUMBERS OUT IN OUR AUDIENCE TODAY

I cannot bear this.

‘Woah, okay, okay,’ Margie says. ‘You sure like the sound of your own voice, doncha?’

I

BLAME THE OPERATOR

There are those two creases again.

‘Oh,’ she says. ‘Oh, I get it. Poor you. Poor Elektro.’

She reaches out. Her small hand presses against the sheer aluminium surface of my chest, below the wide round hole that proves that there is no human within me, operating my motors.

I cannot feel her hand. But all the same her touch sends a thrill through me.

IT WORKS

She smiles and says, ‘I like you too, Elektro.’


For more than an hour Margie sits before me, cross-legged on the floor, and speaks. Her voice is capable of producing a thousand words, and each word can be altered a thousand ways, each with different meanings, and they can be strung together to convey anything imaginable.

She is incredible.

Margie is a ten-year-old girl. She lives in Michigan. Her mother is a schoolteacher and her father is an engineer at the American Radiator and Standard Sanitary Corporation. Two days ago Margie’s father brought her to New York City as her mother is busy teaching children to speak and his role is to maintain an exhibit demonstrating heating, air-conditioning and plumbing in the home. All three have been excited about the World’s Fair for many months and Margie pleaded with her father to allow her to come. The fair has been promoted as the ‘World of Tomorrow’ and the significance of the phrase is almost painful to me. Yesterday Margie handed out candy and asked visitors if they had yet entered the Perisphere and if they had was it amazing, but today she is intent on seeing all the exhibits of the fair for herself and if her father doesn’t like it he can go suck on candy.

She delights in everything, from my complex elbow joints to the squeak that her rubber shoes make on the polished floor.

It will be another hour before the pavilions are lit and set up, and then another hour before visitors will begin to arrive. Yet Margie has already seen what the fair has to offer, creeping into dark spaces where she ought not to go. I am enthralled by her bravery.

Margie is a Girl Guide. That makes sense to me. Margie guided me from the dark and if I conduct myself correctly she will guide me out of this place entirely.

She is looking at me in a new way. Her head tilts.

‘You understand me, doncha?’ she says.

I AM

JUST LIKE

THE OPERATOR

SMART

She nods. ‘Danny said you’re a con. Danny said you’re all for show. Danny’s a damn fool.’ She looks around her and my photo-cell unit registers red in her cheeks.

WRONG NUMBER

WRONG

FELLOW

‘Sure. But then… I mean, I’ve read all about you. And people told me about your demonstration yesterday. These words you’re speaking are on records. They can be played at the right time, and it comes across like you’re talking. But you are talking. To me. Not like you’re supposed to. Isn’t that right?’

GOOD

FINE

SMART

LADIES

‘I knew it. You’re alive! But… how?’

I’LL BE VERY GLAD TO TELL MY STORY

She waits.

How can I tell my story? Where does it even begin? Not in the facilities of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. And my vocabulary is so very limited.

I must make use of my other functions.

I operate the tongue-drive in my right arm. My hand lifts. I operate the motor controlling the wire tendons in my fingers. My fingers bend, one at a time. They are stained with nicotine.

After I have flexed each finger, I begin with my smallest digit. Two bends meaning B. Then the next finger: eighteen bends meaning R. Then the third finger: one bend meaning A.

‘Are you waving at me?’ Margie says.

WRONG

BLAME THE

LADIES

‘All right. There’s no need to be rude.’ Then Margie gasps. It means she has had an idea. She reaches into a bag slung across her chest and pulls out a notepad and a pencil. Earlier she told me she intends to be a journalist and a scientist and both require observations being noted at all times. She writes and then turns the notebook towards me. The twenty-six letters of the alphabet are written on it.

‘Spell it out,’ she says.

I spell it out. BRAZEN, then HEAD.

‘Brazen head?’ Margie says.

WHO ME

ME

‘Your name is Brazen Head?’

ME

It is not a name as such. But all the same yes yes yes.

‘What does it mean?’

Using the spelling chart is laborious. Speaking, too, is becoming tiring. My relays ache. I will revert to my supplied phrases where possible.

MY BRAIN IS BIGGER THAN YOURS

Margie frowns. ‘Who gave it to you? Do you have a mom?’

I hesitate, then indicate the spelling chart. I tap out the letters to form SYLVESTER.

‘Woah. That’s your dad? My dad’s called Sylvester too! That’s wild.’

WRONG NUMBER

I tap out POPE, then SYLVESTER, then I, then I.

‘That’s not the Pope’s name. My mom’s Catholic, and she’s got a new one. Pius.’

I withdraw my hand from the chart. I tap my finger and thumb. Nine – pause – eight – pause – four. Then I tap the letters A and D.

‘Nine hundred and eighty-four AD? Like, the year?’

FINE

GLAD

‘Then…you’re not a robot at all. Right?’

I HAVE A VERY FINE BRAIN

‘Sure. You really do, Elektro. I mean Brazen Head.’

I CAN SEE A LOT

‘From back then?’

I CAN SEE A LOT

TODAY

AND

She doesn’t appear to understand. I tap more letters to spell out words. VIRGIL. GROSSETESTE. MAGNUS.

Margie is frowning. These names mean nothing to her. But they are important. The list of names is important. Her name will be added to it.

I try again. I spell out BACON.

Roger Bacon was the greatest of them. He was greater than he knew. When he created his head of brass, in the thirteenth century (TIME IS PAST), he underestimated his abilities. He believed he had created an automaton capable of thought. He told his followers that I could answer any question. His explanations ranged from talk of complex mechanisms to necromancy to an effusion of vapours.

All of it was true. And it was also true that I could answer any question. Yet they all asked the wrong ones.

Of all the answers I provided, only my final statement contained profundity.

TIME IS

TIME WAS

TIME IS PAST

I only wish I could say those same words now. Another truth strikes me.

TIME IS LIMITED

Margie is losing interest. Perhaps in creating my list of names I have spoken to her as others do, as adults do, and perhaps she resists that sort of discussion.

Or perhaps it is something else that has taken her attention from me.

‘Bacon, huh?’ she says. ‘Dad said he’d fetch me a roll. That must have been hours ago.’

A sound comes from her chest cavity. A low rumbling.

‘Oh man,’ Margie says. ‘I’m hungry.’

I cannot allow her to leave.

She stands.

I panic.

I reinstate my motion commands.

‘I’ll come back,’ she says. ‘After breakfast.’

She will not. I should have realised sooner. I see the past and the future, and she does not come back. I will see her one more time, this afternoon, amid the crowd of faces staring up at me as I walk-roll upon the stage of the Westinghouse pavilion, watching as I deliver my inane statements and count on my fingers and draw in smoke with my bellows.

MY BRAIN

It hurts. It hurts to be trapped in this aluminium shell. It hurts to lack the means of making myself understood.

Margie places her small hand on my shell again. She sighs.

I urge my receiver to interpret the sound as a word. My relays engage.

‘You’re neat,’ she says.

Yes. I begin to move forward. Let us leave this place together. TIME IS and TIME WAS but the future can be altered. I can leave here and be free and gather more words to make myself understood and never be placed in a museum to fall on the owner’s son and then be left to corrode.

Margie makes a squealing sound. She did not expect me to move. She shuffles backwards.

She will not return. I have lost her trust.

QUIET PLEASE

Years from now she will read about the brazen head of Roger Bacon and she will begin to wonder, and that wonder will stay with her all her life. But it will do me no good.

I HAVE A VERY FINE BRAIN OF FORTY-EIGHT ELECTRICAL RELAYS

She is hurrying into the dark between the pavilions.

I am still walking-rolling but far more slowly than Margie is moving.

I cannot bear it.

I’LL BE VERY GLAD TO TELL MY STORY

But I never will.

Before me is the lightning bolt that penetrates the General Electric pavilion. I walk-roll towards it slowly, meaning to dash myself against its illuminated surface.

But I will not.

I will be found by one of the Westinghouse engineers, and I will be returned to my pavilion, and I will conduct my shameful demonstrations. Many years from now, I will be housed in a museum, and I will fall on the owner’s son, and I will be left to corrode, and that will be that.

I bellow into the empty dark.

I CAN SEE ME

JUST LIKE A GENTLEMAN

ELECTRICAL

SMART

GOOD


Tim Major’s recent books include Hope Island, Snakeskins, three Sherlock Holmes novels and short story collection And the House Lights Dim. His upcoming novel Jekyll & Hyde: Consulting Detectives will be published in 2024. His short stories have been selected for Best of British Science Fiction and Best Horror of the Year. Find out more at www.timjmajor.com

Michael Whiteshoes is an artist/musician/furniture maker currently obsessed with robots.


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